As last week came to its prolonged close, punctuated by the singularly disheartening farewell to slain human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, one can’t help but be struck by the feeling that Russia had hit a new low point, and the even greater disappointment of knowing that we haven’t yet hit the bottom. If you are anything like me, the repeated images from the funeral were a cause for a sudden reckoning: internalizing the fact that this most brilliant young lawyer, with both the courage and unlimited energy that has become so rare in this world, has been taken away from us all.
Russia was a safer place when Markelov was still alive, because at the very least, his advocacy was ultimately emblematic of moral outrage – seemingly our last defense. In his work was the affirmation that there was a right and there was a wrong, and when it came to the behavior of the state, no risk is too great if it manages to shine a light on conduct that is both criminal and viral in the nature of its impunity.
Up until his final days, these beliefs and perspectives remained steadfast. One reader has kindly forwarded me a link to translations of two of Markelov’s last articles, which are posted over on Chtodelat News. There is also no shortage of frightening premonition in Markelov’s writings, much as there was in those of Politkovskaya. In his piece Two Worlds, Two Deaths, Markelov writes about the funeral and commemoration of Patriarch Alexei, who unlike Stanislav, was treated to extensively lavish displays of mourning from government representatives. However, so wrapped up was the Russian government and its state media, that everyone ignored the death of the teenager Greece killed by a policeman’s bullet, which ignited weeks of unrest and riots. It is Markelov himself who speaks most intelligently on the outrageous apathy in the wake of his own death:
According to state doctrine, power is infallible and ringed with ahalo of absolute intrinsic value. Those who have attained the highestrank in the power system immediately become fathers of the nation andsaints by virtue of their status. We follow precisely the rules ofByzantium, where each new emperor automatically became a saint. Thisdoctrine cannot account for the fact that the death of an ordinaryteenager would become a national event, that five thousand people wouldcome to his funeral without being prompted by any advertisingwhatsoever or round-the-clock reports on TV. In Russia, personalinitiative must be sanctioned: it must have state support and becomprehensively covered in the mass media. Only then we do end up withthe “well-organized spontaneous outpouring of grief on the part ofevery Russian.”
Yes, it is true that neither Vladimir Putin nor Dmitry Medvedev nor anyone within their tandem administrations has said one word about the murder of Markelov, not to mention the journalist Anastasia Baburova. Since when could the brutal and bloody daylight murder of two such people, especially such a reputable member of the human rights community, represent anything short of outright madness? Have we become accustomed to this? Implicitly, the President and Prime Minister are charged with the duty of guarding the constitution, and as such, there is some responsibility to be accounted for in this considerable violation. But not even an acknowledgement, a laid wreath, or any sort of going-through-the-motions. From their silence, the message is clear from the state – that this type of murder is approved and will not be punished, which if true would place Russia’s current leadership into a class of rulers of very few equals, present or past.
What is it about the new autocrats that gives them such fear ofopposition? Is it that they recognize that their sole claim tolegitimacy is the price of a barrel of oil? Is it that their power onlyappeals to the darkest side of man’s nature, his most venal and selfishinstincts, while men and women such as Markelov and Politkovskaya appeal to a completely different set of values, thus challenging the state? Somewhere in here, one can detect the careful preservation of a false narrative.
This false narrative leads not to a discussion about Russia’s problems with human rights, but rather casts an accusatory finger outward in search of the Kremlin’s good friend, moral relativism. But Russia is of course far from alone in so quickly casting the memory of Markelov asunder. Left and right, we can see “urgent” calls for the United States and Europe to stop giving Russia so much grief over “values” (as though these are intangible dreams), and to seek their cooperation at whatever cost they deem appropriate. When there are murders in the street, before the body is even cold we tend to hear so many voices already telling us to forget about it.
Consider this strange fact: I first met Markelov through the urging of Anna Politkovskaya, who suggested that I sit down for lunch with him to hear about his discoveries of the pogroms of the filtration camps of Russia. That lunch eventually developed into a valuable professional relationship, but before too long the state sent me packing from Russia. How many other countries can a person name where a journalist introduces you to a lawyer, and then, two years later, they are both murdered by contract hits on the streets of Moscow?
Thequestion is not so much by whom – which in many respects is irrelevant considering the openly brazen climate of impunity in Russia. The question is about how it is possible that a system has emerged which allows murders as a function of its own continuedexistence.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but inourselves, that we allow this farce of governance, which has martyred somany and hidden a wounded Russian spirit.